Friday, 14 March 2014

Where is the line between helpful feedback and losing friends?

A chat with a friend triggered an internal debate about how people perceive constructive feedback. Often I feel like I'm a martian among humans when pointing out opportunities for improvement. Despite the "launch and iterate" mentality that I am surrounded with, it seems that Dale Carnegie in "How to win friends and influence people" is right when he says that it's better for the interpersonal realm to NOT point out errors made or, as they call it, suggest opportunities for improvement.

I regularly read a blog from an acquaintance which has great substance but poor form. The grammar nazi that I am cringes at errors like the famous it's / its, plural apostrophes ("two apple's and two orange's", anyone?) and other such hooplas that often make me completely unable to focus on the blog's contents and have my inner Hitchens violently tugging at the chains that keep him from unleashing his righteous fury in defense of the English language. I can't tell you, dear reader, how often my fingers itch to write to the author and serve up a fresh shit sandwich of constructive feedback ("great blog, mate, but PLEASE check your grammar...").

Of course, I won't do it. I realize that while I PERSONALLY welcome any suggestion for improvement in any aspect of my life from ANYONE as long as it's phrased respectfully and points out an actual deficiency (as opposed to matters of taste), other people are not like that and only welcome negative feedback in exceptional circumstances. What these are (in my opinion, after having regularly hit speed bumps) - read on.

Where does one draw the line? Surely, a startup launching a new product welcomes constructive feedback, right, especially when they sit down with you to talk about it.  Right?


The other day, I sat down with an ex colleague launching her first startup. She had questions about fundraising but we first talked about the idea itself. I thought it was not well thought through and that in many ways she was putting the cart before the horse. And I told her so. The longer the conversation went, the more irritated she became and at one point even said something along the lines of "I actually didn't ask for your opinion, I wanted to talk about fundraising".

On the other hand, I had several good experiences where people were genuinely grateful for detailed feedback from my part and they told me so.

So who is right? Dale Carnegie when he says "never say anything negative ever?" or the lean startup and kaizen mentality of constant improvement? Who wins - little Dale angel on my right shoulder or Eric Riess on my left?

The synthesis is probably thus:
1. Don't give unsolicited feedback. It's not worth the time. If someone actually values your opinion, they will come for it. Only in cases where I am friends with the person in question and am genuinely worried that they might waste time and money by going down a wrong path, offer unsolicited feedback. "Hey, I saw you're doing X. I have doubts that it will work but don't want to be a smart-ass, so want to check first if you care about hearing my thoughts - no feelings hurt if you say no". Friendship is a requirement because it opens the door for the other person to actually say no. And finally, only the very best friends are always open to unsolicited feedback. With them, the great thing is that one doesn't have to censor oneself ever.

2. Only offer feedback on things where you substantially add value - where your skill set is actually being used. This means: Yes to detailed, thoughtful feedback about a business idea. No to telling a video journalist that his background music is too loud. The latter feedback anyone could offer and thus it comes close to the territory of "opinions are like assholes - everyone has one". You're cheapening your value by offering man-of-the-street feedback. You have better things to do than this.

3. Only ever give written feedback if VERY explicit consent has been given. Giving feedback in person is generally better because cues can be taken in mid-conversation.

4. When it comes to being a grammar nazi, just swallow your pride. You work in business and not in high-brow journalism. People write like barbarians, even native speakers. Deal with it.

Any other rules to follow? Curious to hear. Remember, I can take constructive criticism! 


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